Wednesday, February 28, 2007

As ESDC waits to name AY environmental monitor, Dean Street residents lose water supply, face FCR obfuscation

On February 5, the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) issued a request for proposals for an environmental monitor to oversee construction activities within the Atlantic Yards project. Responses were due February 26, with selection expected in two weeks.

However, for residents of Dean Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues—a block that on the south side borders the project footprint and on the north side is within the footprint—that oversight seems already overdue.

On Tuesday, they lost their water supply for four hours owing to a worker’s error, and found the inconvenience compounded by a lack of information available from Forest City Ratner’s newly-established Atlantic Yards Community Liaison Office. The likelihood of at least a dozen building demolitions within the next few months makes the issue even more pressing.

The following account, written yesterday, was provided to me by Dean Street resident Peter Krashes, who looked into the issue as president of the Dean Street Block Association and found himself advising his neighbors about the situation. Krashes, who has been a respectful watchdog on this project, stressed that his account was an individual rather than official one.

(I received it too late to check it with Forest City Ratner, but I contacted a company spokesman yesterday about some of the matters mentioned—the demolition schedule--and didn’t get an answer. I added subheadings and spelled out some acronyms but otherwise didn't alter Krashes' text.)

Major inconvenience

For about four hours Tuesday all residents and businesses inside and outside the footprint of the Atlantic Yards project on Dean Street between Vanderbilt and Carlton avenues lost their water.

The plumbing contractor working for Gateway Demolition, the contractor Forest City Ratner Companies (FCRC) has hired to conduct the demolitions inside the footprint, damaged or disturbed the water main. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) was then called so that our water could be shut off in order to make the necessary repairs.

This was a major inconvenience for residents, (including a shelter with families with 350 clients), and caused serious problems for several water dependent manufacturers on our block, including a tofu manufacturer and a uniform laundry business. Both lost half a day of work.


Lack of information

While construction can understandably cause inconveniences and insurance may help businesses to cope with losses, the greatest mishap of the day was the lack of information—or confusion of information—provided by those connected to the project when asked to explain. I spent the afternoon talking to different representatives from FCRC, the plumbing contractor, and DEP.

Some were more forthcoming than others. In my opinion, what happened provides tangible evidence that meaningful, transparent public oversight of the construction elements of the Atlantic Yards project is needed immediately.


Background questions, company response

With the President of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council, Gib Veconi, I visited the Community Liaison Office last Friday. Among other questions, we asked the gentleman there what construction had taken place so far, and he only described construction inside the footprint. We pointed out that plumbers were digging up the street to shut off the water on all of the buildings lining Vanderbilt and Dean inside the footprint, and he told us he was unaware of that fact. I asked the plumber yesterday whether FCRC knew he was doing the work he was doing. He said "absolutely." His permit was issued on 2/16/07.

After the events of yesterday, Loren Riegelhaupt, VP of Government and Public Affairs at FCRC, explained that the plumbers asked the city to inspect the pipe "to double check" they were doing everything right, and the city noticed a leak they needed to shut off the water main to fix. He added, “Something was spotted as a part of what they were doing.” I asked him how he got that information. He told me he spoke to the plumber and "the construction folks" on site.

I pointed out to him the plumber and DEP had explained the event to me very differently, and that DEP had been called in response to an event caused by the plumber. When I asked him the names of the people he spoke to, he couldn’t recall. He called me back later to correct his story and said the plumber hadn't been honest with him because he was scared, and that the plumber and everyone up the line of command had now been severely reprimanded.

I told him that reprimanding the plumber was unfortunate and that accidents happen. Throughout all of this the plumber, though powerless to enact any interaction, was the most forthcoming. The larger aspect of the problem was not the event caused by the plumber, but the way the Community Liaison Office, and by extension FCRC, dealt with the problem.

The intent here is not to punish contractors for the inevitable mistakes and the unforeseen circumstances they must deal with routinely, but instead to ensure that those events are represented to concerned residents and businesses in a transparent fashion so that they may deal with the situation appropriately.

Water goes off

When I originally heard about the water shut-off around 1:00 pm I called the community liaison at the two numbers he gave us Friday. (No one answered one and the other was answered by a consultancy who had no idea what I was talking about.) I called 311, I called DEP, etc.

Around 3:30 I called the community liaison again, this time using a phone number he inadvertently left on Gib’s cell phone. He answered that, seemed surprised to hear me on the other end of the line, and told me he was still working on getting answers to the questions Gib and I left him with on Friday.

When I responded that actually I was calling because of the problem on Dean Street, after a pause he said, “Oh you mean the problem with the water?” But he had no information to give me and as of this afternoon still has not provided me with any information. As of this moment I have been provided no information about follow-up.


Demolition permits posted

An undercurrent in this whole event is that something may have been going on they did not want the public to know about. Today, following the event on Dean Street, the Department of Buildings posted demolition permits for many of the buildings on the east end of the site.

I asked Riegelhaupt yesterday the same question the community liaison answered inadequately on Friday: what construction has taken place in the last week? He said the rail yard is being prepped to move the temporary rail yards east. He also said there is asbestos abatement being done on 161 Flatbush.

He once again omitted the water main work on the east end of the project. When I asked about it directly, he seemed to try to talk around it. He finally said it was preliminary to “removing small stuff” from the buildings. What did he mean by that? Furniture? Hazardous materials? What would happen if the event yesterday had been a problem with hazardous materials—not just a water problem?


Government role?

DEP had no knowledge that the problem had any relationship to the Atlantic Yards project. They said the fact that it did was irrelevant to them. If each time an event like this occurs we have to go to a separate city agency, no city agency will have the whole picture.

Are we supposed to go to the NYC Office of Environmental Coordination? The ESDC? Why hasn’t anyone told us where to go? Who oversees FCRC’s compliance? How do they do it? In what ways can the public give meaningful input?


One month's notice

One worker at the site told me demolition of the eastern side of the footprint is going to happen in about six weeks. While this wasn't confirmed by anyone from FCRC, a representative named John Welsh from First New York Partners, (the FCRC subsidiary that is apparently overseeing the buildings inside the footprint), conceded under pressure that the demolitions will be happening sooner rather than later.

FCRC’s Riegelhaupt wouldn’t address the future construction schedule. I asked him how much notice the community would have before demolition. He said FCRC would provide a week's notice before abatement, which would give the community about a month of notice before demolition.

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